David E. Schrader on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

David Schrader taught philosophy of religion for thirty-one years at Loras College (Dubuque, IA), Austin College (Sherman, TX), and Washington and Jefferson College (Washington, PA). He also served as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006-2012. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In 1983 I wrote an article entitled, “Karl Popper as a Point of Departure for a Philosophy of Theology.”1 While I am certainly less enamored of Popper’s general philosophy of science than I was in 1983, there is one point that I raised in that paper that I continue to believe is crucial for philosophy of religion. In Conjectures and Refutations Popper notes that a “theory is comprehensible and reasonable only in its relation to a given problem situation, and it can be rationally discussed only by discussing this relation.”2

To answer the question of what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion requires that we initially understand what kind of discipline philosophy of religion is. It is not theology, not even philosophical theology. It is a philosophical discipline. Moreover, it is a “philosophy of …” discipline. This means that the first virtue of philosophy of religion is that it be scrupulously attentive and honest in its attention to actual religion.

There was a time not that long ago when much of philosophy of science was practiced as a kind of idealized epistemology, with little attention to the actual practice of science. While there is much to criticize in the work of Thomas Kuhn, philosophers of science owe him a great debt for pushing them to take seriously the history and actual practice of science, even as they may need to do it much more carefully than Kuhn himself did. There are similar stories to be told about philosophy of language, philosophy of art, and a number of other “philosophy of …” disciplines.

The above reflections lead me to identify two norms that are essential to excellent philosophy of religion. First, the philosopher of religion must start with a view of the point of religion, and as a corollary, the “problem situations” to which theologies are productively addressed. Second, the philosopher of religion must have a relatively broad understanding of the phenomenon of religion. It is not sufficient to do technically sophisticated analyses of isolated doctrinal statements.

On the first point, religions historically have been about at least two different sets of concerns. On the one hand, some historical religious traditions have been centrally concerned to either control or explain natural phenomena. On the other hand, some religious traditions have been centrally concerned to understand moral phenomena. For a number of reasons, not the least of which I’m sure is my immersion in the Lutheran Christian tradition, I believe that the latter, but not the former set of concerns provides a conception of religion that is sustainable in the contemporary world. For myself, if I saw religious belief only as an attempt to explain why there is anything rather than nothing, or why there is intelligent life in the universe, I would almost certainly find no place for religion in my life. I fear, however, that contemporary philosophers of religion too often accept this understanding of religion without even considering that it might not be the only way of viewing religion.

The second view of religion, however, is surely not without its advocates. On Luther’s view, for example, “[t]heology is … concerned neither with an objective doctrine of God nor with an anthropology that asks questions about man other than those involving his relationship to God. Both sides of this relationship are determined by the fact that man is a guilty and lost sinner and that God is the justifier and the redeemer of precisely this kind of man.”3 This essentially moral understanding of the point of religion is largely affirmed in the philosophy of religion of Kant. More recently, it has been elaborated in a pair of books by Ronald M. Green: Religious Reason: The Rational and Moral Basis of Religious Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) and Religion and Moral Reason: A New Method for Comparative Study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Whether I am right or wrong in my commitment to this latter view, I believe that work in philosophy of religion cannot be excellent without attending to this issue of the point of religion.

On my second and final point, philosophy of religion will fail to be excellent to the extent that philosophers of religion take their own expressions of religion to tell the whole story of religion. I remember a number of years ago at a Society for Philosophy of Religion meeting, when a presenter, who clearly came from an Anglo-American evangelical protestant tradition, responded to a traditionally Aristotelian Catholic understanding of the religious implications of Darwinian evolution with the claim that it was “ad hoc,” failing to understand that it was much more “traditionally” Christian than his own view. My own understanding of my Christian belief has been importantly shaped by my study of the understanding of language of the Buddhist scholar, Nagarjuna (ca.150 – ca.250 C.E.), an understanding not altogether unlike William James’s understanding of language.

Again, it seems to me that too many contemporary philosophers of religion accept uncritically a kind of Augustinian understanding of language that facilitates technically sophisticated analyses of isolated doctrinal statements but leaves little room for mystery in faith and has little contact with lived religion. If we really believe that our language is capable of giving an accurate representation of God, then it seems to me that we are guilty of a form of conceptual idolatry, worshiping something of our own intellectual construction, something far lesser than God. I conclude by looking back to my 15-year old self. In my Lutheran confirmation classes we learned that we Lutherans believed the doctrine of consubstantiation, by contrast with our Catholic friends who believed the doctrine of transubstantiation and our Reformed friends who believed that the Eucharist was a merely symbolic ritual. Of course I didn’t understand what any of those terms meant. I started to gain some understanding of them only when I first studied Aristotle’s metaphysics in college. Now, should we say that meant that I didn’t really believe those things? I doubt it. The Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, even though I didn’t “understand” it, clearly underlay important aspects of my religious practice.

Whether I am right or wrong in this latter claim, it seems to me that philosophy of religion cannot be excellent without at least considering the issue.

  1. David E. Schrader, “Karl Popper as a Point of Departure for a Philosophy of Theology,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 14, pp. 193-201 (1983).
  2. Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (New York, Basic Books: 1962), p. 40.
  3. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, Robert C. Schultz, trans. (Philadelphia, Fortress Press: 1966), p. 9.

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